Community funded reporting

It’s the latest twist in non-profit journalism. is a project of the Center for Media Change based in the San Francisco area that launched a few weeks ago.  It allows the public to commission journalists to investigate what the site calls “important and perhaps overlooked stories.”

Users can offer story suggestions and freelance journalists can pitch story ideas to the site with an estimate of how much it would cost them to report it.  Once a story is approved by the editors, solicits funding from individual donors. If enough pledges come in, the story gets covered and is made available free through a Creative Commons license to anyone who wants to publish or air it. also is promoting itself as a way for news organizations to save money on freelancers.  News organizations can get exclusive rights to content by paying all of the costs of a story; or they can put up 50% and get first publishing rights.

MediaShift‘s Mark Glaser points out that the idea of crowdfunding isn’t new.  “Independent bloggers and online journalists have for years been asking their audience to help support their work through small donations,” he says.  But most journalists don’t have the business savvy to pull that off.

That’s where the “hub” idea makes more sense, and a platform such as — properly marketed — could help connect writers with potential funders, and handle financial transactions.

The New York Times says some critics (unnamed) believe the project raises troubling questions.  “For example, if a neighborhood with an agenda pays for an article, how is that different from a tobacco company backing an article about smoking?” says it won’t let any one funder pay more than 20% of the cost of a story, but it probably wouldn’t be that hard for a group of donors to fund a story they really want covered.  That doesn’t mean the story would support a particular point of view, of course, but funders might expect it to.  Still, says its “fact-check editors” will ensure fair and accurate reporting.

Former USA Today reporter Jim Hopkins has a different concern.  He told MediaShift he’s worried about the possibility of being scooped if he puts his story pitches online. Should he be?


Planning the multimedia project

Most journalists are already getting involved in multimedia storytelling on some level and a majority of them will tell you that time is their biggest enemy. In the daily crush of deadlines, it’s hard to do a great job on one media platform, let alone two or three.

But every once in awhile a journalist gets a chance to work on a long-term multimedia project. Media General’s Peter Howard is the VP of News & Content for the company’s Interactive Media Division. Speaking to a class of graduate students at Virginia Commonwealth University, Howard said that the best projects devote a good chunk of time to planning. He’s come up with a list of six steps to help insure a multimedia project’s success:

  1. Set goals. Howard says you have to ask, “What are you trying to achieve?” He suggests too many people skimp on this step, thinking the answer is obvious, but defining the goals of the project can clearly help shape the content.
  2. Collaborate. According to Howard, you have to talk extensively and often with others to determine how you can achieve your goals. Web developers, reporters, photojournalists and anyone else you might need on the project should be included in meetings from the get-go.
  3. Define the audience. This may or may not be a part of your goal-setting exercise, but it’s an important step in the planning process. Determining who you will target with the project will also have an impact on the content you gather and the way in which you present the information.
  4. Develop a timetable. Howard maintains that this step in the process is critical. “Set realistic deadlines for the collection of material, and be sure to factor in development time,” Howard says.
  5. Select tools. Think about what tools can be used to present the content most effectively and to invite audience participation – is a poll or a forum better – a slideshow or a video? “Page views shoot up for photo galleries,” says Howard. “But be aware that about half your audience won’t be able to hear an audio slideshow, so using audio plus captions is probably the best way to go.”
  6. Establish a presentation plan. Finally, you have to determine what your project will look like online. Howard suggests you start with a storyboard – sketching out what the audience will be presented with first, then the next scene and the next. “It will help you see gaps in your presentation a lot quicker, “says Howard.

Howard says project planners should also consider what they already know about their audiences and their sites. “One thing we’ve found is that a text story will get about five times more hits than a video story,” Howard says. He also pointed out that some forms of interactivity work better than others, for example, “it’s hard to get people to write, so polls may work better than forums at times.”

Howard wrapped up the discussion with a look at a couple of projects that serve as examples of what can be achieved through this planning process.

Hickory Daily Record (Hickory, NC), Sawmill Murder

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Holocaust Survivor

Speaking Spanish gives a leg up

Josh Hinkle, a reporter at KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says his ability to speak Spanish got him a plum assignment to cover a local story with national implications.

Last May, federal, state and local agents swarmed Agriprocessors Inc. in Postville, Iowa, and arrested almost 400 immigrants for being in the U.S. illegally. The next day, Hinkle says his station sent him out on the story because he was the only reporter there who spoke Spanish.

Hinkle says that helped him get stories other reporters couldn’t.  Once he started speaking to people in Spanish, he says, “the floodgates kind of opened.”  Thanks to Wartburg College student Andrew Nostvick for writing about Hinkle’s experience in CyberWave, the INBA newsletter.  Check it out to see a short video interview with Hinkle, a recent graduate of Oklahoma State University.

Remembering Russert

Journalists everywhere are mourning the loss of NBC’s Tim Russert, one of the really good guys in the TV news business. Full disclosure: Tim was my husband’s boss. He wasn’t just a tenacious questioner as moderator of Meet the Press. He wasn’t just a great communicator, able to convey a story’s significance in a few, well-chosen words. Tim set a standard for everyone who worked with him, and not just in the way he pursued the news. He was a straight-shooter on and off the air, and a caring human being. As Variety’s story puts it:

The keys to Russert’s success, as many who knew him said, were his almost-superhuman work ethic, his passion for politics, his training in Jesuit schools and law school and his enduring embrace of his working-class roots.

Tim didn’t just appear to be a regular guy, he was a regular guy who carried his love for his hometown, Buffalo, NY, with him wherever he went. He’s going to be impossible to replace. While speculation already has started about who will take over Meet the Press, and who might become the new bureau chief, there’s no sign that NBC will make a rushed decision. For now, the thinking is about Russert. A public wake is schedule on Tuesday at St. Alban’s School in Washington. A private service for NBC employees only (no spouses, even) will be held on Wednesday. We’ll all miss you, Tim.

Ask more questions

Sam Donaldson, who has spent most of his long career at ABC News covering politics, said he’s “apprehensive” about some of the campaign coverage on radio and television this year, suggesting that journalists haven’t been tough enough in questioning the candidates.

“It’s not our job to tear them down or fall in love with them,” he said. “It’s not our job to promote them. It’s our job to bring people facts about them and to question them.

“Don’t be rude–you know it’s my maxim,” Donaldson said, drawing laughter from the audience, who remember him shouting sometimes impertinent questions at U.S. presidents.

But ask the questions. Your job is not to win a popularity contest. Don’t go along to get along. Don’t give anyone a pass. Keep on them. On election day, go vote, but say to yourself I held their feet to the fire.

Donaldson said that journalists collectively should hang their heads for not pressing hard enough for answers before the invasion of Iraq. When it comes to covering candidates, he added, “Don’t be afraid to ask every question that you think is appropriate to find out what they believe in and what they have in store for us if they’re elected.”

Donaldson spoke at a ceremony at RTNDA in Las Vegas where he received the Paul White Award, given to recognize an individual’s lifetime contribution to electronic journalism. Past recipients include Christiane Amanpour, Charles Gibson, Charles Osgood and Ted Koppel. When he saw the list of previous winners, Donaldson said his reaction was “shock…and awe.”

A personal note: I’ve known Sam for more than 25 years. When I covered the White House in the Reagan years, Sam was already a dean of the press corps. When he yelled questions at Ronald Reagan, he did it not to be rude but to try to get answers. Reagan held very few press conferences and after the attempt on his life he was always surrounded by security who kept everyone back, including journalists. Days would go by without our actually seeing him in person, and then we’d only catch a glimpse as he walked from the Oval Office to his helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House.

Sam had the loudest voice in the press corps (although Bill Plante of CBS could hold his own), so he’d shout questions in the hope of getting a reply. Sometimes, Reagan would answer. But the tactic became less and less effective after the White House decided to keep the helicopter’s engines running while waiting for the Commander in Chief. If you’ve seen shots of Reagan walking along cupping his ear and shaking his head, that’s Sam’s voice he’s pretending to be unable to hear. But what he’s ignoring are questions the American people wanted answered.

ABC effectively took Sam off the air in 1999, after more than 30 years covering Capitol Hill, the White House, appearing on This Week with David Brinkely and co-hosting PrimeTime Live. His reward was to get the opportunity to launch the first regularly scheduled news program on the Internet in 1999–back when ABC thought “appointment viewing’ was going to be a winner online, says ABC News Washington bureau chief Robin Sproull. “Sam has never met a platform he didn’t like,” Sproull said. “If there’s a platform to deliver news, Sam wants to be on it.”

Sam now hosts a daily half-hour show, Politics Live, on the ABC News Now digital channel, which few people can see or bother to watch. But he goes at it with the same gusto he always brought to covering politics and he remains a mentor to young ABC staff.

Raising the ante

How has the Internet changed journalism? Can journalism survive in a world where there are no longer any “gatekeepers” and if so, what will it look like? I’m at a symposium in honor of Phil Meyer, author of Precision Journalism, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where these big questions and many others are being discussed.

Scott Maier of the University of Oregon believes journalism will survive because editors will become “navigators,” finding news in different places and helping people discover it. They need the same judgment skills journalists have always needed, Maier said, but they also have to understand that the definition of credibility has changed, because accuracy is in the eye of the beholder and many people seek news that favors their point of view.

Mark Briggs of the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., said today’s audience decides what kind of journalism they want, not the old gatekeepers, so a navigator’s most important role is to facilitate a discussion about the news. What the audience wants is interactive, immediate and transparent, Briggs said, a lesson re-learned in the past week when his paper’s comments section went down. The newsroom was flooded with angry calls and emails from people who wanted to participate in the news as a conversation, but couldn’t.

Briggs also talked about how reporting and delivering the news have changed. Some reporters are now “beat blogging,” forming social networks around their beats to develop stories and engage people who are not involved in news otherwise. [Here’s an example I discovered a few weeks ago from a New Jersey newspaper reporter.] A well-connected reporter is obviously going to break more stories, but Briggs says that today’s well-connected reporter should take source development public. As for news delivery, Briggs says the linear narrative has given way to short bursts, like SMS text messages. How will news organizations communicate to these consumers? What is journalism today now that the construct of the narrative has broken down? Is journalism writing code, like

Whatever it is, it’s not going to be easy work. “Some wag once said that journalism is the place where the best of the second class minds go,” said Gil Thelen, former publisher of the Tampa Tribune. A navigator has to be a talented reporter, analyst, convener and multimedia “super-journo.” And students are asking who’s going to pay them to do all that. “I tell them they have to be entrepreneurial and there is a grain of truth in that,” Thelen said. “All journalists are going to be working in non-bureaucratic organizations. We’ve got to do some serious work to answer the question, ‘How am I going to make a living in a new media world?'”

Faked out (again)

The Los Angeles Times has apologized for a recent story that it says was partly based on fake documents. The story quoted records obtained from the FBI as saying that associates of rap producer Sean “Diddy” Combs set up the murder of Tupac Shakur. But the paper’s editor, Russ Stanton, now says the documents appear to have been fabricated.

We published this story with the sincere belief that the documents were genuine, but our good intentions are beside the point. The bottom line is that the documents we relied on should not have been used. We apologize both to our readers and to those referenced in the documents and, as a result, in the story. We are continuing to investigate this matter and will fulfill our journalistic responsibility for critical self-examination.

The fraud was unmasked by the Smoking Gun Web site, which said the documents seemed to be phony, in part, because they looked like they were written on a typewriter, not a computer, something that wouldn’t have happened in 2002. Does this sound familiar? It should. In 2004, CBS News relied on apparently fake documents for a 60 Minutes story about President Bush that eventually led to the departure of anchor Dan Rather.

These incidents make clear that journalists need to do to more to authenticate documents before broadcasting or airing stories based on them. And the LA Times report raises another concern. As of this morning, the original story was still online with no indication that it’s wrong or that the paper has apologized. It’s since been taken down. In today’s media world, a corrections policy that doesn’t cover the Web immediately is inadequate, to say the least. [NOTE: An earlier version of this entry appeared to suggest the murder was in 2002, when in fact it happened in 1996. The bogus records were obtained in connection with a 2002 lawsuit. We regret any confusion and have changed the entry to clarify.]

UPDATE: The Times retracted the story over the weekend [April 7, 2008]. The newspaper says it has concluded that the “FBI reports” it relied on were fabricated and other sources used did not support the story.

Context counts

The scandal involving New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer brought out a raft of commentators and “expert” analysts, which is to be expected.  But viewers should also expect to be told a little bit about who these experts are and why they’re worth listening to.  Context makes a difference but often it’s not provided.

Last night, for example, NBC Nightly News included a sound bite from New Jersey Gov. John Corzine reacting to the Spitzer mess. “I think all of us in public life have to recognize that our own personal behavior ends up undermining the trust that people need to have in their political leaders,” Corzine said.  But reporter Mike Taibbi didn’t mention that Corzine was speaking from personal experience.   Corzine was badly injured in a traffic accident last year because he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and later admitted, “I set a very bad example.”  Wouldn’t that have been useful for viewers to know?

CNN put Kendall Coffey on the air to talk about Spitzer, identifying him as a “former U.S. attorney.”  According to Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald, Coffey had personal experience to draw on, too, but the network didn’t share that with viewers.  Garvin reports that Coffey was forced to resign in 1996 “after biting a dancer during the process of running up a $900 bill at a strip club.”   Presuming that someone at CNN knew about this (which may be giving too much credit where it isn’t due),  shouldn’t the viewers also have been let in on it?

Perfect pitch

Too many good stories never make it on TV because they fail the “pitch test.” With resources tight and air time limited, news managers aren’t going to green light every story idea. If you want the opportunity to tell a story, you have to know how to sell it.

Last weekend, I moderated a session on story pitching for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, along with KPIX-TV news director Dan Rosenheim and Peggy Girshman of Congressional Quarterly (formerly of NPR). Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Make sure you actually have a story in mind, and not just a vague idea.
  • If a newspaper article prompted your story idea, make sure you can suggest how to advance the story.
  • It’s okay to pitch a story you read in “a” newspaper, but not “the” (local) newspaper; in other words, don’t suggest a story everyone in your area might already have read.
  • If your pitch was inspired by an academic study or government report, make sure you’ve seen the original source.

Both Peggy and Dan say a good pitch needs to be focused, just like a good story. “Don’t focus on the medium, focus on the tale,” Peggy advised the group. Check these additional tips for story selling, and let us know if you have others to add.

50 years of scoops

How does he do it? Bob “Scoop” Phillips has spent half a century chasing breaking news in Dayton, Ohio, and he’s still going strong. Featured on the cover of this month’s News Photographer magazine, Bob is a reporter/videographer at WDTN-TV. He works alone and tells writer Julie Washington that he never goes to the station, because “there’s no news in the newsroom.”

Bob covers courts, cops and City Hall. He shoots and does his own interviews. He’s persistent but never pushy, Washington writes. He talks to everyone, not just the bosses. “He leans out his car window and calls out ‘Any news?’ to policemen in squad cars or a city attorney crossing the street.” And he has access almost everywhere. How does he do it?

One word–trust,” said retired common pleas court judge John Kessler. “We trust Bob and have, because he understands the system. He knows the people and we know him. His word is good.”

Take a tip from Bob. Show that you can be trusted, and you’ll build relationships with sources that pay off over time.